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A Thousand Leaves: How Sonic Youth Chose The Wilderness
Stevie Chick , April 23rd, 2018 06:18

The alternative rock major label gold rush of the mid-90s didn't last long but it burned most of those involved, in one way or another. Stevie Chick examines how the New York mavericks managed to "quietly decouple" themselves from the mainstream and prepare for their final late period genius phase as he looks at A Thousand Leaves, which was released 20 years ago

By 1998, underground music’s unlikely liaison with the mainstream had thoroughly soured. The gold rush of six years earlier, begun when Nirvana gatecrashed the charts with Nevermind, seemed several lifetimes away, though the rot had begun even before Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. That awkward negotiation between art and commerce – The Man craving the kudos afforded by association with leftfield artists but spooked by anything that wasn’t obviously a Radio Friendly Unit-Shifter – swiftly corroded both sides’ relationship, yielding a slew of contrary LPs by alternative artists worried they might’ve compromised themselves, keen to re-assert their indie credentials, or just plain wanting to jam a thumb in the eye of their corporate paymasters before they inevitably went the way of Tad (the grunge primogenitors dropped by not one but two major labels before the alt_rock era was out).

Nirvana’s In Utero was only the most legendary and pungent of this trend; see also Porno For Pyros’ baffling and distracted God’s Good Urge, Pearl Jam’s inspired curveball No Code (which abruptly ended a run of Multi-Platinum releases), and Nine Inch Nails’ inspired leap into acrid anhedonia with their epic (and epically successful) double-set The Downward Spiral. As the paradigm tilted towards the centre, so these albums pushed back in the direction of awkwardness, errant-ness, the wilderness, with varying results.

Sonic Youth, meanwhile, had begun to quietly decouple themselves from the mainstream experiment a couple of years earlier. They could reasonably take the credit/blame for the whole phenomenon, early adopters of the Major Label shilling who hooked up with Geffen Records in 1990, and had urged the label to sign Nirvana in the first place. Their post-Nevermind concession to the crossover era, 1992’s Dirty, might’ve polished the sheen of their din, but it hardly dulled their attack, and was certainly no act of compromise. Still, its follow-up, 1993’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star, stepped away from Dirty’s big rock moves, the group’s antennae tuned instead to subterranean flavours like Riot Grrl and Royal Trux, while 1995’s Washing Machine set controls for ambient space-rock.

Sonic Youth correctly surmised they had more leeway with their label than the newer kids on the block, and were beginning to stretch their wings. “We’re in a pretty lucky situation, because by the time we were signed we were already pretty well established,” guitarist Lee Ranaldo said during a 1998 interview with ace Aussie kids’ TV show Recovery. “So the label realised if they did anything other than let us be, It would screw up a good thing.”

In the months approaching the release of their 14th full-length, A Thousand Leaves, Sonic Youth released a pair of instrumental EPs, hewn from early sessions for the new record. The first releases on the group’s own Sonic Youth Records imprint, 1997’s SYR1: Anagrama and SYR2: Slaapkamers Met Slagroom, served as bulletins from the sessions for A Thousand Leaves, cut at their new studio Echo Canyon, located on Murray Street, near the World Trade Centre. The roiling, open-ended sturm-und-drang of these EPs set the scene for the album that would follow, not that the media paid much attention to them. It’s hard to imagine music less fashionable than that being made by Sonic Youth in 1997, but, as Ranaldo told Recovery, “We just try to focus on the music and not let the business or the trends or whatever’s happening get in the way.”

By building their own studio, and starting their own record label, Sonic Youth were explicitly securing themselves the freedom to do whatever they want. These were no spoiled, haywire 20-somethings looking for something to rebel against, but 30- and 40-something parents, with mortgages, and a desire to keep pursuing a path they fought hard to reach.

The music on those EPs was, by turns, exultant, maddening, enigmatic, inspired and mystifying. The album that followed was much the same, an uncompromising set that was easy with being hard to love, but harboured brilliance within its obscure corners. It opened in the spirit of an album begging you not to listen to it, with ‘Contre Le Sexisme’, four minutes of sonic vapour, over which Kim Gordon murmured impenetrable poetry. It isn’t the last time A Thousand Leaves will try your patience, but ‘Contre Le Sexisme’ offers precious little reward.

Patience is a virtue the album often demands of the listener. Sure, Washing Machine had boasted a ten-minute title track and a twenty-minute closer, the celestial ‘The Diamond Sea’, but A Thousand Leaves is wilfully leisurely, and as with everything about this most wilful album, its a quality that ultimately seduces those susceptible to its charms. The centrepiece, ‘Hits Of Sunshine’, jams languidly for over eleven minutes, its pulse slower than a heartbeat, its tendrils of psychedelic guitar purposefully evading focus, tacitly acknowledging that these one-time art-punk guitarrorists harboured at least one Deadhead, Lee Ranaldo, among their ranks (indeed, Thurston Moore joked in Index magazine in 1998 that Sonic Youth were planning on touring with 90s Deadhead revivalists Phish, saying “flower hippies are the only way we’re going to make money in the future”). But the text of the song – at one point mooted as the album’s title track – cites another important reference point: Allen Ginsberg, who had died the previous spring. From the perspective of 20 years on, knowing the paths Sonic Youth subsequently took, and Moore’s latter-day focus on poetry, the song feels like a gesture of purpose, redrawing their context, transposing themselves from the Lollapalooza world of alternateens and skateboard-themed MTV promos to a boho beatnik milieu that’s doubtless more where they belonged now.

Elsewhere, A Thousand Leaves saw SY further explore the loose, jammy vibe of ‘Hits Of Sunshine’ with more focus. ‘Sunday’, the album’s single, fuses krautrock-chug and that aforementioned flower-hippy vibe, Thurston sounding positively autumnal as he eulogises the day of rest, the group building to an exquisite cloudburst of skronkular excess (a radio-edit, slicing away the more far-out moments, was serviced to US stations as a way of inviting unsuspecting listeners to get lost in A Thousand Leaves’ nooks and crannies; “for commercial radio geeks who need to smash it in between Smashmouth and Smashing Pumpkins,” Ranaldo told the New Yorker’s Alec Foege).

‘Wildflower Soul’ ran further with this theme, opening with ear-curdling scree and scour, which died away to reveal scarified folk-rock songcraft, which itself unraveled around the three-minute mark for a discursive instrumental detour that saw Moore, Ranaldo and Gordon all bending lines of the melody into new shapes, before building back towards that head-crushing noiseout with which the track began: a bucolic, motorik excursion that made like Can lost in the forest and beckoning UFOs to come rescue them.

But there was a flipside to A Thousand Leaves’ flower-hippy jamming: Kim Gordon’s contributions. And Kim’s work on this album is some of her, well, most Kim Gordon, pushing her blunt, unschooled growl to the forefront, and lining some of the youth’s most combustible noise-bombs with uncompromising, darkly witty politics. ‘Female Mechanic Now On Duty’ welded to its gnarly noise-rock wreckage lines revealing how modern culture sidelined and silenced women and commodified their emotions. “Modern women cry / Modern women don’t cry”, Kim repeated through a mid-song whiteout, which she later explained was inspired by Meredith Brooks’ radio hit ‘Bitch’. “When she sings, ‘I’m a lover, a sister, a mother, a bitch, an angel’, etc, she reduces once again women to the same cliches,” Kim told French news weekly Telemoustique. “I wanted to write a song on the theme, Do modern women have the right to cry? I can’t bear that media, especially women’s magazines, pretend to define women with a few words. We are as complex and changing as men.”

‘Female Mechanic’’s raw churn was only surpassed by ‘Ineffable Me’ (with its savage hook, ‘Hate castrator! Hate castrator!’) and the untameable eroticism of ‘French Tickler’, Kim presenting a wild spectrum across these showcases, sounding nothing like ‘rock & roll' – transcending it, even – and sending the mewling little fanboys within the group’s audience running away scared. The album closed with two slight, almost tossed-off vignettes, Thurston’s dreamy ‘Snare Girl’, and Kim’s improvisational rock out ‘Heather Angel’, which she appeared to be writing as the group performed it. As much as the tracks that preceded them – perhaps even moreso – these songs seemed to say, We aren’t playing that corporate rock game anymore, or even pretending to. This was marmite music, par excellence.

And this divisive record quickly wrong-footed much of the music press, baffled by its experimentalism, or more likely bored by music that didn’t dive to the chorus, that didn’t offer comforting familiarity. Melody Maker’s reviewer called the album “a waste”, was offended that Kim would use an obscure word like “ineffable”, and complained that her holler of “Don’t fuck with me” left him with “nothing further from my mind, in either sense”. NME sent Steven Wells to interview the group, who declared Thurston Moore’s vast record collection evidence of “a mild form of autism” (it was a different time). Rolling Stone noted that “songs plod for long stretches”, describing the album as “both tossed-off and overwrought”.

But the cold reception didn’t shake SY’s mettle, following it with NYC Ghosts & Flowers, an album that further pursued their boho beatnik interests and anti-rock noiseouts moves, and provoked a 0.0 review from a nascent Pitchfork. Then came SY’s renaissance, with 2002’s Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse, two albums of fearless, exploratory jams, late-career masterpieces as good as any in their discography, and arguably better, by every metric, than the often unloved and occasionally unloveable A Thousand Leaves. But this complex, corrosive album was a transitionary set without which Sonic Youth couldn’t have escaped the Lollapalooza era for the creative freedoms that followed, a statement of independence that was the work of a group unwilling to settle for comfort, when they could strive to be their best selves.